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HE is behind the curve when it comes to supporting mental health

Michelle Morgan of Bournemouth University argues that, though there are many example of good practice in supporting mental health, there is much more that could usefully be done.
This article is more than 5 years old

Michelle Morgan is Dean of Students at the University of East London. 

This year has seen a veritable blizzard of articles and reports about the rise in wellbeing and mental health issues, especially amongst young people in higher education.

They are often referred to as a generation that is too “sensitive” – fragile like “snowflakes”. I find this argument not only offensive but erroneous – as it implies that the increase in mental health issues amongst the young is a relatively new phenomenon. It is not.

Although last year’s Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR) report – Not by degrees: improving student mental health in UK universitieshighlights the increase in mental health disclosures amongst students in HE, other factors must be taken into consideration when looking at these statistics.

Better data

Statistical reporting on this issue has become more comprehensive and accurate in recent years. As more students enter higher education, the number experiencing wellbeing and mental health issues will obviously increase too. In recent years, applicants have rightly been encouraged to disclose disabilities without fear of being refused a place – enabling universities to be aware of them, and to provide the required support.

Mental health issues such as anxiety and depression, which have long been known to commonly occur in the early teens, can often be associated with a reaction to (and symptom of) someone’s environment. Unless such issues are dealt with effectively at the time, they can reappear later if triggered by a stressful event. The transition to university can be one of these triggers.

Increasing openness with taboo subjects

As a society we have become more open in discussing taboo subjects such as mental health. We’ve better to access to information, and advice is available via avenues such as social media. Openly discussing challenging topics such as mental health is a healthy, mature, approach and something we should encourage.

A few weeks ago, I was a panel member for my university’s Students’ Union Debate Society discussing whether students today are more sensitive and what the impact of social media has been on young people’s health and wellbeing. Alongside me on the panel was a 17-year-old well-known female “vlogger” who spoke on wellbeing and mental health issues. She told her story -how she had felt worthless as a young teenager, had become depressed, and how just over a year ago, she had attempted suicide. She spoke openly and honestly about her experience, explained how she was dealing with her depression, the support she was getting, and how she was helping others as a result.

Thirty-three years separated us but our stories were almost identical. However, her response and experience was in total contrast to my mine. In the early 1980s, when I was 14 years of age, I became anorexic due to life challenges and feeling worthless. At 17, I also attempted suicide. The difference though was that in the 1980s, I was a forgotten statistic like so many others. Wellbeing and mental health issues amongst teenagers were not discussed and there was limited help.

I remember waking up in a hospital bed after my attempt and being told by an aggressive doctor to not be “so stupid again”. The attitude was to “pull your socks up, stop being weak and just get on with it”. You were made to feel ashamed – my parents never discussed the incident with me because of their upbringing and experience. As a mature student at the start of the 90s, I studied alongside students with wellbeing and mental health issues that were still not spoken about or supported. I was luckily enough to obtain extensive counselling in my early 30s and was able to deal with the issues that haunted me in my teens.

Stop seeing mental health disclosure as negative

So an increase in reported wellbeing and mental health disclosure should not be viewed as a weakness but a candid openness and maturity in seeking help and support. Admitting to having a mental health condition still holds stigma and is viewed by some as negative, and this attitude isn’t held for other health conditions. I routinely hear colleagues say that some students are using poor wellbeing and mental health issues to “play the system” – using mitigating circumstances for deadline extensions and the justification for producing poor quality work.

Over the 25 years I have worked in higher education, the vast majority of students I have seen have used the process properly and respectfully. If there are robust processes and systems in place then abuse of the system should not happen. It is also down to us to educate students when it is appropriate to use these processes.

Getting up to speed

The sad reality is that higher education as a sector has not kept up with the change in social awareness regarding mental health, and has not adapted accordingly. There is some fabulous practice being developed in pockets across the sector which could be adopted more widely. There are also some fantastic mental health charities for young people – Student Minds is one great example, who provide advice and guidance for both students and staff. Their Know before you go and Transitions handbooks are freely available.

It is time to break the cycle and start educating our youth about life pressures, how to deal with them, and to identify the signs and symptoms of poor wellbeing and mental health in schools before it then continues into higher education. But in the meantime, HE needs to bridge the current gap.

So what can we do?

Here are six suggestions.

  1. Support for wellbeing and mental health support in and around HE institutions must be adequately funded by government, and should be seen as a smart investment. This funding should be used to educate staff and students, providing immediate gateway triage support and linking to charities and NHS services.
  2. Early identification is most likely to happen by frontline staff. Pastoral/supervisory roles are part and parcel of university life, and it is here that poor wellbeing and mental health issues are often first identified. Such staff should be appropriately trained and supported.
  3. A recent report by Hughes et al in collaboration with Student Minds, entitled Student Mental Health: the role and experiences of academic staff, identified the stresses academic staff experience because they are not equipped with the appropriate skills. All staff should receive mental health awareness training, which should work alongside a dedicated person within a department or school who is trained to provide health support triage where referrals can be made can if other staff feel unable to deal with a situation.
  4. Faculties and central services often work in a siloed manner which prevents a joined-up approach. Once a student has been referred, it is essential that key faculty stakeholders such as course leaders, course administrators and academic advisors are kept in the loop about a student – whilst being mindful of confidentiality.
  5. A student may have a mental health issue but it does not mean they are unfit to study. It can sometimes feel that the process is used to remove students who are seen as “problematic” because they require extra support and the institution doesn’t have the expertise or resources to act as an effective gateway to the NHS.
  6. By educating all students about the stressful pinch points in their academic lives, and how to identify wellbeing and mental health issues early, we can help students “help themselves and each other”. But this should stretch beyond the first year of study, and offer support and advice at each transition stage. Using willing students to talk openly about their wellbeing and mental health issues and how they deal with them, provides what Jane Hardman from the University of Manchester calls “real models not just role models”.

Higher education should be about evolving and adapting to reflect the changes in society. Our legacy surely has to be to not let the younger generation make the same mistakes we did and to empower them to help themselves and others.

5 responses to “HE is behind the curve when it comes to supporting mental health

  1. Really insightful piece, thank you. Agree with point 5 here, I have heard many occasions of personal tutors suggesting leave of absence to students at the first hint of any struggle re: mental health. Obviously that is not on the tutors in their entirety, tutor responsibilities is a separate issue. However, this demonstrates to me that HE institutions are slightly behind the curve nationally on advising and supporting their staff to signpost students effectively.

  2. Excellent article, I agree 100% with your suggestions. I would also advocate the professionalisation of support / pastoral roles. These roles are invaluable but I believe that the expertise and skills involved in these roles is not recognised as fully as it could be.

  3. Excellent contribution to a really important issue. I fully support the proposal for more staff training. We do need to understand why some providers are more effective in meeting student needs than others.

  4. Great article, strongly support a more joint-up approach not only between faculties and central services but links with the Student Union and other student engagement departments who may be the first to identify poor wellbeing and mental health but lack the training or experience to deal with it. It is a university-wide issue and should be treated as such with sensitivity and awareness.

  5. A refreshing read Shell, thank you for sharing your story so openly with us. I completely agree with your comment that a proliferation in mental health issues is not new to younger generations, it’s because younger generations are better at openly talking about it. HE institutions can learn a lot from your 6 suggestions and I also agree with the comment above about a teamed-up approach with Students’ Unions to identify students in need of help.

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